Friday 24 February 2017

'Populist' versus Academic Obscurantists

"Open the Lyceum Doors to the Public Now"
Obscurantism was the theme of a lecture I gave at Northwestern University near Chicago today. Aristotle, who wrote some challenging 'esoteric' books, also gave accessible public lectures at his Lyceum to explain his work (they were called 'exoteric' and sadly have not been preserved). This was good academic practice.

Scholars today use unnecessary obscurity when communicating with one another. We make far too little effort to express our findings in ways that non-specialists can understand. For hilarious examples, see the submissions to the 1990s Bad Writing Contest, which I would like to re-establish.

Occluding Truth Can Appear Impressive
Academic obscurantism happens for three reasons. First, laziness. It takes less effort to express complicated ideas in the dialect of people sharing our assumptions than to express them in the dialect of other tribes. Second, careerism: we are sometimes rewarded for displaying command of specialist jargon, especially if it conceals a lack of anything significant to say, to cheering peers. Third, elitism. Making ourselves incomprehensible to most of our fellow citizens can help us police the ownership of intellectual ideas and access to university places and jobs.

But we are at a point in history where custodianship of the truth, and skills in critical analysis of public discourse, have never been more important.  For obscurantism, justifiably associated in the public imagination with wildly out-of-touch professors and pretentious art critics, is also an invaluable instrument in the toolkit of tyrants. Plato knew this when he defended the ‘Noble Lie’ as propagated by State Guardians.  

At its crudest, 'populist'-tyrannical obscurantism takes the form of inventing terrorist attacks or straightforward concealment of the truth. It can obfuscate the nefarious workings of capitalism: the Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) invented by American banks, which precipitated the 2008 financial crisis, were simply a clever label for the illicit hiding of debts.  

"Who Said I Had No Sense of Humour?"
This week, Stephen K. Bannon, who is committed to the wholesale public obfuscation of real financial and political hierarchies and injustices, cracked a joke. This was pointed out by my my friend Sara Monoson, Head of Northwestern's Department of Political Science.  

Bannon told the Conservative Political Action Conference that his goal was nothing less than the ‘deconstruction of the administrative state.’  Being, perhaps unexpectedly, a bookish person himself, he knows that the word ‘deconstruction’ is intimately associated by the public, even if they have not heard of Jacques Derrida, with their stereotype of the smug left-liberal intellectual snob. 

With Professor Monoson
Bannon, an arch-obscurantist, may not have had them rolling in the aisles with his pun. But he has brilliantly co-opted the very term which is emblematic of what Trump’s supporters see as the ‘irrelevant’, unpatriotic and privileged intelligentsia, moving seamlessly between elite universities, the hated media and the Washington ‘political class’. 

The Obscurantism Wars have been declared. We need to stand up for what Aristotle would have called the median virtue of clarity between the Scylla of wordy academic obscurantism on the one hand, and the Charybdis of political obscurantism masquerading as 'ordinary-person-commonsense-speak' on the other. It’s time for academics to step down from their Ivory Towers, stand up for old-fashioned values like clarity and truth, and do some plain speaking for once.

Sunday 19 February 2017

On Receiving an Honour at Athens

After a winter beset by flu and medieval problems which I’ll divulge in due course, I ran away to Athens. Despite the obvious increase in homelessness and darned clothes, even since I last visited in October, the Athenians are resilient and still go for strolls to enjoy their lovely sunsets. Sunlight there has not (yet) been sold off to any global corporation.

On Tuesday I received the greatest compliment of my life, an Honorary Doctorate from Athens University. There is no institution in the world from which I would rather my work received recognition. Inducted by Professor Walter Puchner, I was given a beautiful scroll and a sash, blue with white goose feathers: serendipitously, my acceptance speech explored the possible reasons why it is a goose that Aristotle is waving a knife at on the university’s famous fresco.

Before the ceremony, the Rector and Deans took me upstairs to make sure I was lent the right size of gown. These are elaborate in design, reminiscent of stage stereotypes of Japanese or Chinese authority figures.  Looking back at other Athens Honorary Doctors gives me impostor syndrome, so vastly more important has been their contribution than mine. But it was size that was on my mind. It is obvious I did not wear exactly the same costume as tall Derek Walcott, nor the much lamented six-footer Umberto Eco. 

Vladimir Putin is less tall. I fear that I wore the very same garment as he did  in 2001. I hope I do not develop ambitions to invade Crimea. I do not know the height of soon-to-be fellow-Hon-PhD-Athens, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi; is it too much to hope he will wear the same one as I did and it transmits to him some sympathy for the Greeks’ plight?

Despite staying out late on a dance floor slurping Pina Colada, I scaled the Acropolis on Wednesday, with daughter Sarah, long-time co-conspirator Dr Rosie Wyles and her husband Mr Holmes. On the plane home I dreamed I was being directed by Mike Leigh in a performance of the Mikado’s song My Object all Sublime. Is it a sign of incipient megalomania that in the dream I was bursting with joy?

Sunday 5 February 2017

Xenophon, Hallucinogens & the Hydra

Having gone down with flu the weekend Trump was inaugurated, I've just emerged from twelve days when I thought that the news reports penetrating my feverish consciousness were just the paranoid hallucinations of a Lemsip addict. Then yesterday I got out of bed  and discovered they were true.

This coincided with opening the new Cambridge Companion to Xenophon, edited by Professor Michael Flower of Princeton, a beautiful book in which I have a  brief say on the huge influence exerted by the writings of this Athenian soldier-adventurer. That article is available free on my website, as are as many of my other books & papers as I dare.

The Sea, the Sea!
Xenophon's most famous book was his account of his journey upcountry (Anabasis), when with ten thousand comrades he was stranded near Baghdad at the heart of the hostile Persian empire. The Greeks took two years to stagger to the Black Sea coast and ships to freedom. The Anabasis has been crucial to American military culture and national identity: George W. Bush’s covert plan to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein was codenamed the ‘Anabasis Project’. 

But the story resonates for different reasons now. The speech of the week was the Baghdad-born Kurdish MP Nadhim Zahawi lamenting that his sons, who are studying at Princeton, feel stranded at the hostile heart of the USA but dare not leave it for fear they will be forbidden to return. 

The Xenophontic text with even more painful relevance today is Memorabilia 3.4.1. Socrates argues that a businessman can make a good statesman. In an excellent blog published before the election, Dr Jon Hesk discussed what this might say about Trump.

A skill which Xenophon’s Socrates suggests a businessman could bring to statesmanship is delegation to well-qualified specialists. But even this skill has bypassed Trump. He has appointed climate-change-denier Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. An advocate of ‘Dominion Theology’ and schools privatisation, Elisabeth ‘Betsy’ DeVos, breathtakingly, is his Education Secretary.

Kellyanne Conway is the sole appointment where the individual is almost over-qualified. The Presidential Counsellor is petrifying (and I do not choose this word lightly—several journalists have compared her to Medusa because of what they perceive as her frequent ‘bad hair days’). This super-sophist for the digital age understands Big Lie theory perfectly. Even Jess McIntosh, Hillary Clinton’s Director of Communications, grudgingly admires Conway: ‘You have to be operating at Jedi mind-trick-levels of punditry to not sound completely insane while saying the sky is green, and she manages to do that.’  From a defeated rival, this is high praise indeed.

But I would read ‘Hydra’ for ‘Jedi’ here; it is to the head-sprouting Hydra that Socrates in another text, Plato’s Euthydemus, compares uber-sophists who can ‘prove’ that black is white: ‘the hydra—that she-professor who was so clever that she sent forth many heads of dispute in place of each one that was cut off.’ I fear that there are hundreds more hydra-heads equivalent to ‘alternative facts’ and ‘Bowling Green massacre’ remaining to sprout before we're done.